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Orioles making community, safety top priorities during coronavirus delay: ‘How do we take care of our people?’

Much like the community at large, the Orioles aren’t sure what the future holds, but the organization is trying to prepare for a return to some form of normalcy with a focus on safety.

Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president, community development and communications, has served as the team’s point person in Major League Baseball’s conversations with clubs about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. On the 15-hour drive she took from Baltimore to Florida over the weekend, she figures seven of them were spent on conference calls as the Orioles and the league try to sort out the coming days, weeks and months.

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"We're taking this situation one day at a time,” Grondhal said on a conference call with reporters Thursday evening. “We've been working very closely together as a team. Our employees really have just been fantastic, stepped up to the plate, working very hard, most of them from home at this time.

“What we know is we have to be really thoughtful to get everything right with all the questions that we're being faced with, but as an organization, every decision that we're making, every decision that we've made thus far is with the health and safety of our employees, players and fans in mind, so we're encouraging our players and fans to follow the guidelines, to lead by example, so we can be part of the solution, and that's our priority, and we do see our role in the community during baseball season as being leaders in the community, and certainly during this situation."

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The Orioles announced Tuesday that they would close their business offices through March 29, but Grondahl admitted that she wasn’t sure that date would necessarily be the time they would reopen. She was adamant, though, the offices will remain closed as long as they need to to be safe for those who work there.

“Soon as we feel that we can open the doors, we will,” Grondahl said, “but not a moment sooner."

That timing stands among a bevy of questions the Orioles are faced with on the business side of their organization that as of now don’t have answers. Grondahl said it would be “naive” to think the coronavirus pandemic’s financial implications on the Orioles won’t be “pretty substantial.”

What exactly those implications are and many of the other uncertainties tie directly into the season’s unknown start date. On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked to restrict crowds of 50 or more for eight weeks, and MLB subsequently announced it would adhere to those guidelines, pushing Opening Day of the 2020 season to at least May 10, far from the March 26 date the Orioles were originally scheduled to begin the campaign. The need for players to get a spring training-like ramp-up could further delay the regular season.

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“I think all of us are in the same boat where this is something none of us have ever dealt with and certainly would never have expected to be dealing with,” Grondahl said.

Major League Baseball announced Tuesday that all 30 of its teams will donate $1 million each to support ballpark employees during the delay, leaving it up to each team for how it will deploy that pledge. The Orioles are finalizing that decision, Grondahl said, performing analyses and consulting with other organizations. In 2015, when protests in Baltimore caused Oriole Park employees to miss out on four games of work, the Orioles reimbursed them for lost hours. As of Thursday, the club was unsure how much each worker would receive or for how long.

“Ultimately, we’re going to do the best we can, and we’re going to be here for our employees, and we’ve committed to that,” Grondahl said. “You’ve seen how all of the 30 major league teams have committed to compensation for our seasonal ballpark employees, and that’s really where our focus is right now: How do we take care of our people?"

Although three of those 2015 games were played as home games in St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, the other was notably played without fans, a situation Grondahl said she would be open to seeing repeat only if that was determined to be the safest route of action.

"I'm in favor of whatever we have to do to keep in line with the CDC recommendations,” she said. “If we are able to put baseball players on a field and we feel that we can safely do that for their protection, I'm in favor of that. Of course, we would prefer to have fans at Oriole Park, just as the fans would prefer to be there, but I'm in favor of whatever we have to do that's a wise decision.

“It's bigger than baseball for us. We want to do what's right for the community, and we'll follow the guidelines that are set for us."

Although the team has announced its ticket refund policies for the exhibition home games that remained when spring training was canceled, it has yet to do so with regular-season tickets. Grondahl pointed to the Orioles’ official website, which states, in part, “We expect to be able to provide answers to all ticket related policy questions shortly after MLB is able to announce the changes this situation will have on the 2020 schedule.” It’s not yet determined whether it will be possible for the league to play its full 162-game season.

The Orioles are also adjusting their own schedule that featured several entertainment and community-relations events at the ballpark and in the Baltimore region to keep fans engaged in the second full year of the franchise’s rebuilding process. For now, the team is working to rearrange dates on those that the delay could affect, Grondahl said, but hopes “to do as much as we can in the season that we have to do it in.”

The team seemed to springboard itself into the season with a series of those types of events, with the Birdland Caravan in early February sending players, coaches and executives throughout the state to meet and interact with various groups of fans. Although it’s possible that the temporary shutdown could quell whatever momentum the Orioles had built within the fanbase through the caravan, Grondahl chose to take an optimistic view of the situation.

“I do think what we experienced with Caravan was very telling about our fans and really how loyal they are to our organization as we're in this rebuild,” she said. “I think that the bright spot in this sort of cloudy day is that our fans will be really craving baseball, and if we can put together a baseball season and the entertainment that we have planned and add to that some of the other outreach that we're planning on doing, I feel like we'll be able to continue that momentum."

For now, though, all is a standstill, with the season’s opening date unknown and much else to be determined.

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